Flying Cars, Virtual Reality, and Experiential Scarcity

Peter Thiel famously said, “We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters”. While there are promising flying car startups and Twitter is wildly popular, his argument that this technological future isn’t what we envisioned decades ago is largely true. We spent years developing personal computers and decades building out the Internet though we’re doing a decent job of getting everyone a mobile computer. All that work went into getting us those 140 characters. As it turns out, all that work also allows us to attack the transportation problem–the one that flying cars was intended to solve–in a much better, cheaper way with Virtual Reality (VR). Rather than reorganizing atoms, we’re tickling neurons. Rather than solve just one problem we can solve a whole lot of problems.

The problem with flying cars, besides the fact that a ton of metal will fall out of the sky when things go wrong, is that it’s an example of how economics pushes back on technology. Harrier jets take off vertically and began service in 1967. Hovercraft were around in the 1950s. Space tourism is getting attention, with tickets via the Russian space program going for $20-$40 Million each and Virgin Galactic working on a $250,000 ride. This is what I would call “Experiential Scarcity”. It’s when an experience is so expensive or dangerous or fleeting that it becomes a scarce resource. Hanging out in the International Space Station is a scarce experience because of the round trip ticket. Watching the Super Bowl from the line of scrimmage is a scarce experience because you’d get crushed. Eating at a Michelin-star is a scarce resource because most of them are in France or Japan. Even if you were a billionaire, you wouldn’t have the time nor energy to travel to all the top vacation hotspots or premier sporting events or elite restaurants.

VR can end experiential scarcity. You could ride to the ISS next to Gene Roddenberry, cringe as Russell Wilson throws that ill-fated pass on the last play, and eat foie gras-flavored foam at French Laundry all during your lunch hour for the cost of your Netflix subscription. You could be a farmer in the Midwest, a seaman on a nuclear submarine, or a migrant worker in Shanghai (Gene and Russell can speak Mandarin, of course). Some might say that we already have photographs and video. Indeed, with those mediums you do get a glimpse of the experience and looking at VR technology today the gap isn’t too wide. But imagine when VR can simulate not just sight and sound but also our other senses. With VR, we’re not as limited by economics or practicality or even time. With VR, we bend the unspoken rules of technological progress. With VR, everyone gets flying cars and they won’t be killing anyone on the ground.

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